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Styx: Master of Shadows
Dev: Cyanide Studios / Pub: Focus Home Interactive
Welcome to the world of Styx, an ancient Goblin who is set upon infiltrating the Tower of Akenash in order to get to The World Tree. This tree is the source of Amber within the world, a powerful gloop that serves as part-time McGuffin and part-time aspirin for the game’s unlikely hero.
Yes, you play as a butt-ugly green menace who stalks the shadows of the tower, sneaking and climbing his way around the levels, snuffing out torches, humans and elves with your bony fingers. Styx is a spritely little fellow, who nimbly crawls, shuffles, climbs, swings and sneaks around the environment; he can also use a range of pretty amazing Amber-powers in order to supplement his natural Goblin flair for the stealthy.
By using some of that precious Amber (that for some reason is lying around all over the place, despite its obvious scarceness and value), Styx can vomit forth a little monster helper to aid his exploration and killing, he can employ ‘Amber-vision’ which allows you to see items (and persons) of interest more easily and he can render himself invisible for a short period. All the powers Styx has at his disposal must be mastered and utilised if he is to prevail, since taking on enemies directly in combat is about as advisable as eating an onion-rich curry the night before an interview – and just as deadly.
Like all shadow-hugging bullies, Styx is very good at unpleasantness when he can strike from the shadows. Many situations in the game are resolved by covert sneaking followed by a silent shuffle up behind an unsuspecting guard and then holding down the X button until the ‘muffling and neck-breaking’ animation is complete. Try to go toe-to-toe with guards though and Styx soon finds himself on the pointy end of a one-sided argument. Whilst it is possible to parry and attack guards on easier skill levels, upset more than one enemy at a time and its pretty much curtains. Fair enough of course, Styx is a stealth game after all. Those of you who are looking for stealth-lite with a bit more of a gung-ho approach had better find your kicks elsewhere.
Enemies in the game go about their business on pretty simple loops, but make too much noise – or even deliberately draw their attention using your puke-buddy and they will go into a heightened state of alertness, deviating from their normal path. If they find you, that’s very bad news since they will gang up on Styx and kill him, but drawing soldiers away from their patrol routes is an important technique to master. Once you’ve got your foes out of the way however, the next step is getting to where you need to go.
Level design in Styx is wonderful. Truly. The vast majority of the areas within the game lend themselves to creative and adaptive route-choice. The levels seem big enough on a flat plane, but once you factor in the impressive degree of verticality on display, you really begin to appreciate quite how much scope you have to be creative in your approach. A vast number of objects can be hidden behind, crawled underneath, climbed upon and vaulted over, which of course sounds like every other stealth game – but Styx needs to be played in order to appreciate that it’s the scope of the environments that make it shine. Even the opening mission gives you so many possible routes through that it can be almost overwhelming. For the record, I took possibly the least-optimal route when I played the first level, but I was having such fun playing with the mechanics on offer that I wasn’t in the least disappointed to observe a much easier way through once I’d got to the end.
If the level design is great, then it is balanced out by some factors that are greatly irritating. Sadly, there are a few issues with the game that move it from the must-buy category, to the think-carefully one.
Firstly, for those of you who are concerned about graphical fidelity, Styx looks pretty mundane. Best described as functional, the graphics within Styx are glitchy and full of ugly-looking textures. The bullshots in the promotional material that you’ll see give you the right flavour, but don’t reflect the true nature of the game. Cut-scenes in general and lip-synching in particular are almost laughably poor and really serve to pull you out of the game.
Also pulling you out of your immersion in the game is the voice-acting which is cringe-worthy at times. Awkwardly expressed and embarrassingly scripted, the game wants to use its dialogue to make it feel like a living world, but unfortunately ends up sounding farcical. This is especially a shame since special mention must be made of the fantastic musical score for the game which, although repetitious, invokes a powerful sense of unease, whilst being securely appropriate for the setting.
Finally and most unfortunately we come at last to the controls. Styx almost gets things right here, sneaking and climbing feel easy and natural, combat feels difficult enough to make it off-putting and the controls are mapped to the controller in such a way that you don’t end up doing the wrong thing due to an unfortunately placed context-sensitive input. Where it gets it badly wrong however is in Styx’s ability to jump from walls to ledges and inability to climb down from ledges. Describing how awkward this is might be tricky – so bear with me.
Getting down from a windowsill – In order to do this, you have to throw Styx out of the window and try to turn and grab the ledge. This is a ridiculous system; Styx is an able and agile character so why he can’t simply climb down from a ledge is beyond me. Similarly, dropping down onto a ledge is hit and miss, since you can’t be sure he’ll just drop. Sometimes he jumps out, no matter how carefully you approach making your way down.
Jumping from a wall bracket to a ledge. This is frustrating in the extreme, mainly because Styx will randomly not catch the ledge. I have no idea why this is but it leads to deaths that are nothing to do with the player.
Not being able to trust that the controls will do what you think they’re going to do is the worst fault a platform game can suffer from. I have no problem whatsoever with the game being tough, nor with it requiring multiple attempts and even a degree of trial-and-error. It is my belief however that a tighter control scheme when it comes to moving around those brilliantly designed levels would have seen Styx: Master of Shadows elevated to a lot of people’s Game of the Year Lists. As it is – much like its protagonist’s aerial gymnastics – too often, Styx falls a little short.
Styx: Master of Shadows is out now for PC, XB1 and PS4